Empires In The Northwest

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Before the huts were completed, a hurricane broke. For three weeks it roared so furiously that men could venture forth only on hands and knees. The St. Peter was driven ashore and demolished. Fine sand sifted endlessly into the huts. Steller tried to keep it brushed away from Bering, but the commander whispered to let it be; it kept him warm. On December 8, 1741, he died.

Twelve of the original 76 crewmen had perished before the landing, nine during it. Ten more, including Bering, succumbed by the first of the year. Mysteriously then the others improved; by spring everyone was up and about. The problem now was to escape. The St. Peter was wrecked beyond repair; the crew’s carpenters were dead. But a Cossack was found who had once labored in a shipyard, and under his uncertain supervision work began on a new vessel. There were few tools, no wood but wreckage, no rigging but rotting hemp. None the less, by mid-August the survivors had floated a clumsy craft forty feet long, thirteen of beam, six deep. Its upper part was caulked with tallow from the sea cow, its under with tar salvaged from the hull of the St. Peter . It wallowed. It leaked. But it held together long enough to reach Avacha Bay on Kamchatka.

Although the miraculous return occasioned rejoicing in Petropavlovsk, the Russian court remained indifferent. The enthusiasm that had launched the expedition had died with the ascension of a new empress. Worse, very few of the scientists who had made the different voyages remained alive to press for publication in the face of current inertia and antiforeign bias. (Steller, for one, died while crossing Siberia.) Such news of their findings as did leak out was largely unofficial and against the wishes of the government.

In eastern Siberia, however, there was one item of information that could not be suppressed. This was the knowledge that the survivors had brought back with them 900 sea-otter skins.

Bobri morskie , sea beaver, the Russians called the five-foot-long, web-toed animal. The fur is a dark, dark brown, almost ebony in the water, but with enough underlying silver to impart an unmatchable sheen when it is stroked. The underfur, so dense it sheds water, is silky soft. For such a pelt the Chinese merchants at the edge of the Gobi Desert were willing to pay up to 100 gold rubles.

The news spread like wildfire. The promyshleniki stampeded for Bering Island as once Yermak’s men had stampeded after sable. Their first craft, modeled after the barges employed on the rivers, were the “woven” boats, the shitika , mere flat-bottomed log frames covered with green planks held together by deerhide thongs and willow withes, caulked with moss and tallow. The men who risked their lives to these unseaworthy vessels could scarcely reef a sail or plot a course. It is said that of every three crews that embarked during the early days of the rush, only two came back.

Results, however, were sometimes fabulous. The first man out after the return of Bering’s crew, a Cossack sergeant named Basov, sailed into Petropavlovsk with a cargo worth 112,000 rubles—in today’s currency not much less than a million dollars. This was just the beginning. A decade later a single ship reputedly grossed nearly $2,500,000.

The exploitation which resulted was as brutal as any the world has known. First the bobbing ships put in at Bering Island, where the gentle sea cows were slaughtered and cured as a supply of meat, with such ruthless efficiency that soon the animals were extinct. Next the hunters steered for the Aleutians. As fast as one island was stripped, the men moved on to the next. As they ventured farther and farther east, ships of necessity grew larger and piloting better. No surveys were made, however, and few records kept. The promyshleniki and their savage commanders were interested only in furs—and in women.

At first the Russians did their own hunting. Soon, however, they learned that the amiable Aleut natives would do it for them, in sea-tight little skin bidarkas , in return for the cheapest trinkets. When at last the Aleuts grew less ingenuous and more demanding, the promyshleniki invoked refined methods of persuasion originally developed among the natives of Siberia. Hostages, principally young women, were seized and held on shipboard as an incentive to production. Obediently then the husbands went forth to hunt. The safe way was for them to use Russian-supplied traps for foxes, nets across tidal channels for otter. Another way, but slow, was for a ring of bidarkas to surround an otter and keep it diving until its supply of oxygen ran out and it could stay beneath the surface no longer. But the most productive way was to wait until one of the inevitable hurricanes drove the otter herds onto the reefs for shelter. The Aleuts then followed through the tumult of white water, clubbing the animals if possible fom the pitching bidarkas , or, more often, disembarking and running up on them undetected in the crashing surf. Casualties were high, but that did not bother the Russians, snugly ensconced with the waiting women.